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Gates, Reginald Ruggles

Gates, Reginald Ruggles

(b. Middleton, Nova Scotia, 1 May 1882; d. London, England, 12 August 1962),


Gates was one of several early geneticists who tried, unsuccessfully, to unravel the genetics of Oenothera, a particularly important botanical genus. The son of a farmer and fruit grower, he was educated in Canadian schools: B.A. (1903) and M.A. (1904) from Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, and B.Sc. (1906) from McGill. During the summer of 1905 Gates was introduced to the complicated genetics of Oenothera (evening primrose) while studying at the Woods Hole Biological Laboratory; he pursued this problem in the research which later (1908) earned him the doctorate at the University of Chicago.

Oenothera had first come to the attention of biologists several years earlier, when Hugo de Vries discussed the genus in announcing the discovery of genetic mutations. De Vries had noticed several strikingly variant individuals in a field of wild evening primroses; these bred true when cultivated experimentally. In answer to a question which had long plagued biologists, de Vries had thus demonstrated the occurrence of new genetic types, appearing spontaneously and following the same inheritance patterns as older varieties.

De Vries’ mutation theory was eventually validated on other species—particularly Drosophila melanogaster— but his original example did not stand the test of time; the mutant forms of Oenotnera did not follow classic Mendelian patterns of inheritance. They were not, as biologists later learned, mutant forms in de Vries’ original meaning of the phrase. At the time that Gates began his work, the genetics of Oenorhera was regarded as extremely puzzling.

Gates studied the mutant forms of Oenothera cytologically rather than genetically. He discovered that one mutant species, rubrinervis, has chromosomes which form rings instead of aligning in pairs during meiosis; sometimes, as Gates demonstrated, this phenomenon can lead to an unequal division of chromosomes. Another species that Gates studied, Oenothera lata, had fifteen chromosomes instead of fourteen, the chromosome number of the parent species, lamarckiana. A third species, gigas, was tetraploid; it had twenty-eight chromosomes.

These cytological studies were widely applauded— Gates was awarded the Huxley Medal and Prize of Imperial College, London (1914), and the Mendel Medal (1911)—but they did little to explain the irregular breeding behavior of the primroses. Several decades passed before biologists were able to understand of the genetics of Oenothera. Without a full understanding, of the gene, theory in general, as well as such particular phenomena as translocation disjunction, and the balanced lethal system, the cytological facts that Gates discovered are difficult to interpret. He tried to interpret them in The Mutation Factor in Evolution (1915), but his analysis apparently did not win favor with the biological community.

After leaving Chicago, Gates spent two years at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis as an experimenter. In 1912 he crossed the Atlantic and began to teach, first as lecturer at St. Thomas Hospital, London, and then as reader (1919) and Subsequently head (1921) of the botany department of King’s College, University of London. As his administrative duties increased, his research activities decreased. He participated in the work of his graduate students; but until the early. 1950’s, by which time his interests had shifted from genetics to eugenics, Gates did not publish any additional significant work.

Gates had developed an interest in eugenics during the 1920’s and published a textbook on the subject at that time, Heredity and Eugenics (1923). His subsequent researches, particularly into the pedigrees of Negro families, convinced him that mankind had had polyphyletic origins and that only a small number of chromosomes were needed to produce racial differences; he was also convinced that racial crossing was genetically harmful. Most anthropologists and geneticists did not agree with Gates on these points; this led him to found a new journal, Mankind Quarterly, in which he would be free to voice his opinions. His most significant eugenic discovery, dealt with the gene for hairy ear rims, a characteristic of the Ainu of Japan; Gates located it on the Y chromosome.

Gates traveled widely, and late in life he often combined his travels with his eugenic investigations. From 1940 to 1950 he was in the United States, first on a lecture tour and then as honorary research fellow at Harvard. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and an officer of several other British scientific societies.


A more complete biography of Gates and a complete list of his publications can be found in J. A. Fraser Roberts, “Reginald Ruggles Gates,” in Biographical Memories of Fellows of the Royal Society. 10 (1964), 83–105.

Gates’s studies of Oenothera mutants were published over several years: “Pollen Development in Hybrids of Oenothera lata X O.lammarckiana, and Its Relation to Mutation,” in Botanical Gazette, 43 (1905), 81–115; “Hybridization and Germ Cells of Oenothera Mutants,” ibid., 44 (1907), 1–21; “A study of Reduction in Oenothera rubrinervis,” ibid.,46 (1908), 1–36; “Chromosomes of Oenothera,” in Science n.s. 27 (1908), 193–195; and “Further Studies on the Chromosomes of Oenothera,” ibid., 335, This work was summarized, and his theories of mutation advanced, in The Mutation Factor in Evolution (London, 1915); see also “The Cytology of Oenothera,” in Bibliographia genetica, 4 (1928), 401–492.

His eugenic studies and outlook can be sampled in Heredity and Eugenics (London, 1923); Pedigrees of Negro Families (Philadelphia, 1949); “The Inheritance of Hairy Ear Rims,” in Mankind Quarterly, 1 (1962), written with P. N. Bhaduri; and his monumental textbook, Human Genetics, 2 vols. (London, 1946).

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

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